The Games of the XXXI Olympiad have just started in Rio de Janeiro. A few thousand young men and women will be sweating in their competitions; a few billion people will be watching them on television screens; and a few bioethicists will be disputing the merits of taking drugs and human enhancement. Stretching the body to its limits, going "Faster, Higher, Stronger", is a thrilling spectacle. But -- this is just a personal crochet -- I've always sought out the human drama in the Olympics, which sometimes has nothing to do with record books.
My favourite Olympic moment comes from the marathon at the 1968 Games in Mexico. John Stephen Akhwari, of Tanzania, began to cramp up because of the high altitude conditions. And then at the 19 kilometre mark, he fell and badly injured his knee and shoulder. But on he ran, or stumbled, and as dusk was falling, he hobbled into the nearly empty stadium, a bandage flapping around his leg, and crossed the finish line an hour after the winner. When they asked him why he bothered, he replied, "My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race."
You can enhance stamina and speed, but can you enhance courage and loyalty?
However, the question highlights the importance of Britain in the world of bioethics. Britain is the home of utilitarianism, which is the dominant philosophy in bioethical discourse at the moment. The medical and scientific establishment is dominated by a utilitarian mindset which has set the agenda for debates on embryo research, stem cell research and assisted dying around the world. As one cynical writer commented, “when it comes to bioethics, Europe might be better off without Britain”.
There is something in this. Although I am handicapped by a big language barrier, my impression is that from Norway to Italy there is much more depth and diversity in bioethical discourse across the Channel. The Greens and the Christian Churches are much more influential, to say nothing of Continental philosophy, which despises utilitarianism as vacuous and naïve. If England (the pundits all agree that Scotland will secede) loses its biomedical industry to the EU, perhaps utilitarian bioethics will lose some of its funding and its influence. That would be no bad thing, I think.
Sorry, guys, but BioEdge will be taking a holiday during July. Our next issue will be in the first week of August.
I have no love for Donald Trump, but it does seem unfair that only he is being accused of being crazy in this year’s election for president. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any man (or woman) who hankers after high public office must be in need of a psychiatrist. In 2013 psychologists published an article asserting that most recent presidents have suffered from “grandiose narcissism, which comprises immodesty, boastfulness and interpersonal dominance”. Remember that Hillary Clinton has been accused of all these failings, not just Trump. Perhaps they are crafty, not crazy.
That’s why the Goldwater Rule is a good thing. As Xavier Symons mentions below, this is an informal rule of medical ethics for psychologists and psychiatrists which bans them from commenting on the mental state and stability of public figures. It’s very rash to predict that psychological flaws disqualify a person from holding public office. Winston Churchill was depressive and an alcoholic and became the most admired statesman of the 20th century. Abraham Lincoln probably suffered from depression but is the most revered of all American presidents. Mr Trump may be unsuited to the job of president, but I’d prefer to make up my own mind on the subject without airy speculation from psychiatrists who have never spoken to the man himself.
You probably remember the scene in The Matrix in which Morpheus explains to Neo the terrible secret: “You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
In the jargon of The Matrix, I’m a blue pill person and believe that I’m in touch with reality. Perhaps I am deluded.
Elon Musk, billionaire co-founder of PayPal, and the boss of Tesla and SpaceX, on the other hand, is definitely a red pill person. Last week he told a conference of geeks in San Francisco that we are probably part of a powerful computer simulation. In fact, he estimates that "There's a one in billions chance that this is base reality”. (See story below.)
Musk is an intelligent man, but I wonder if he understands the ethical implications of the red pill. If we are really marionettes in a super-human intellect’s simulation of reality, nothing much matters. Certainly worrying about right and wrong is a waste of time. Human life doesn’t matter much either, as we are all just blips in a gigantic computer game. There’s not much incentive for social solidarity.
The death of Muhammed Ali at the age of 74 is reminder of the uneasy ethical status of boxing. Only in boxing is the brain the target. Ali’s Parkinson’s disease was probably a result of punishing blows to the head over the course of his career. Gloves probably make the problem worse, as they increase the weight and the force of impact. Headgear may not protect boxers from rotational acceleration.
John Hardy, a neuroscientist at University College London, wrote a couple years ago: “nothing can be more killing of joy than personality changes, violence, substance abuse and dementia. I also think it is demeaning as a society for people to get pleasure out of watching others fight and that we should consign this public spectacle, as we have done public executions, to the dustbin of history.”
What do you think? Should professional boxing be banned? It seems hard to justify a sport which, in the words of Joe Frazier, who beat Ali in the brutal “fight of the century” in 1971, “boxing is the only sport you can get your brain shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker book.”
We want to send a big thank-you to everyone who contributed to BioEdge over the past four weeks. Our goal for annual donations this year was US$15,000 – and we received just about half of this during this campaign. We’re more or less on target.
This is very encouraging for our work in reporting on significant developments in bioethics around the world.
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Twelve years ago, political scientist Francis Fukuyama described transhumanism as “the world’s most dangerous idea”. In 2004, that sounded a bit daft -- almost no one had ever heard of the idea. For many people it still does, but now transhumanism is going mainstream.
Movies are being made about transhumanist themes; newspapers like the Washington Post are running feature articles on it; and a transhumanist is running for US President. It is indeed dangerous. As Fukuyama said:
The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology's tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost.
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According to the Oxford experts’ calculations, extinction of the whole human race is reasonably likely. Scientists have suggested that the risk is 0.1% per year, and perhaps as much as 0.2%. While this may not seem worthwhile worrying about, these figures actually imply, says the report, that “an individual would be more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event than a car crash”.
What sort of calamities are we talking about? Collision with an asteroid, the eruption of a super-volcano, extreme climate change, a bio-engineered pandemic, or even a super-intelligent computer declaring war on wetware humanity.
Tiny probabilities add up, so that the chance of extinction in the next century is 9.5% -- which is worth worrying about. And of course, a mere global catastrophe, involving the death of a tenth of the population, is far more likely. That is a very startling statistic.
However, even at Oxford they make mistakes. Within days of issuing the Global Catastrophic Risk 2016 report, the experts were eating humble pie. A mathematician reviewed its calculations and concluded that “the Future of Humanity Institute seems very confused re: the future of humanity”. The authors had to give more nuance and context to their most startling statistic. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the ethics of existential risk.
BioEdge was launched in 2001, in the week that President George W. Bush announced his adminstration's policy on human embryonic stem cell research. That fuelled a huge debate about a field of science which very few people had ever heard of, let alone thought deeply about. Ever since we've been chronicling the debates surrounding the ever-expanding empire of bioethics.
As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we are also promoting a fund-raising drive over the next four weeks. The BioEdge newsletter is free, but it is increasingly expensive to produce. This year we are hoping to raise $15,000.
Although it has been called the world’s most dangerous idea, transhumanism probably provokes more ridicule than fear. Uploading one’s brain onto the internet or talk of thousand-year life spans seems to defy common sense.
Nonetheless, my theory is that transhumanism is the logical outcome of a lot of contemporary bioethical theory. So developments in transhumanism are worth paying attention to.
The biggest story at the moment is the quixotic campaign of the head of the Transhumanist Party, Zoltan Istvan, for president of the United States. He is a philosophy and religious studies graduate of Columbia University and has worked as a journalist for the National Geographic Channel.
Mr Istvan has been running a blog on the Huffington Post for a while about his campaign which aims to make the platform of his party more plausible. In the latest post he defines transhumanism as “the radical field of science that aims to turn humans into, for lack of a better word, gods”. So while transhumanism is resolutely atheistic, it has religious aspirations.
And unlike Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists, Istvan argues that our responsibility is to transcend evolution. He writes: “the human body is a mediocre vessel for our actual possibilities in this material universe. Our biology severely limits us. As a species we are far from finished and therefore unacceptable… Biology is for beasts, not future transhumanists.”
It’s a curious development. While many prominent scientific thinkers want to abolish God and treat man as one beast amongst many, transhumanists want to abolish evolution and recreate God (or gods).